Milestone celebrations are pretty common. Birthday parties. Coming-of Age parties. Wedding anniversaries. Graduations. Business Anniversaries. As humans, we are obsessed with marking the passage of time. In a sense, it indicates progress and advancement.
While these occasions are typically celebrated with the gathering of persons, sharing of a meal and a feeling of joy and jubilation, what typically stands out, are the ‘Remember when..’ stories that invariably get retold from the archive of someone’s memory. A healthy dose of nostalgia for the pleasure of those gathered. Sometimes funny; sometimes embarrassing; sometimes too long; but always, memorable.
In a nutshell, that’s the power of storytelling.
Our brains are wired to pay special attention to stories. We receive and process them in a much more personal and profound way than we do other forms of communication. This is what gives stories a unique power to touch our hearts and minds.
The Changing of the Guard
It’s no secret, with more Babyboomers retiring every year, businesses are changing hands. Many will be passed to family members and some will be sold to parties outside of the founder’s family.
Stories have been and continue to be the flame that keeps the initial fire of the founder’s passion going long after they may have exited the business. They enshrine the blood, sweat and tears that went into building the business and serve as a cultural tie that binds existing employees of a business to a shared purpose.
Regardless of the business’ path, stories remain central in marking the transition from one generation to the next. To celebrate milestones, businesses are seeking out professional storytellers as frequently as they might have sought the local baker in the past.
Transitional Storytelling: Bringing the Past into the Future
Smart business owners have always understood the power of stories and have used it to build cultures and sell products. According to Nunzio Presta—CEO of BizON, an online marketplace for businesses, stories also play an important role in the sale or acquisition of a business:
Great businesses usually have great stories ... A great story can connect with a buyer on a deeper level, enhancing the entire purchase experience by making it more about a "calling" rather than just money/business… This can ignite the buyer with a passion for the potential business and can play a significant role in negotiations - ultimately leading to a premium on the purchase price."
Stories don’t just communicate values; they communicate value. Sellers capture the hearts of potential buyers not only by presenting the business' performance data, but also, by building an emotional connection. That combination translates into real monetary value.
Even if you’re not selling the business, storytelling is a powerful tool for communicating value internally. Increasingly, family business owners are realizing that the road toward a successful transition is paved with storied intentions. Zaake De Coninck, Co-Founder and Director of Plantain Publishing, says this about the uptick in requests for the company’s storytelling services:
We have seen a dramatic increase in interest in businesses wanting to tell their stories. Stories are a particularly useful vehicle for transferring knowledge between generations and… allow organizations to navigate changes while remaining grounded in core values."
In our own work with family-owned businesses, we have seen both the need for and the benefits of storytelling, particularly in the run-up to a generational transition. For younger employees, stories help to reinforce the founder’s passion and purpose.
A unique example of storytelling for a business’ longevity is the Huntington Learning Center (HLC). Founded in 1977 by Ray and Eileen Huntington, HLC is a chain of over 300 owner-operated learning centers and is now in its second generation of leadership through Ray and Eileen’s daughter, Anne Huntington.
As founders, the Huntingtons had a story to tell. As owners of a franchise, however, they realized that each of their owner-operators also had a story to tell about their own individual passion, purpose and sacrifices. Through careful curation, the one enduring story of HLC is woven from the many strands of its owner-operators’ stories and reinforces the strength of the company’s culture, creating a strong anchor for the future.
Don't be Afraid to Tell Your Story
Some owners will bristle at the idea of sharing their stories for fear of appearing arrogant or boastful. However, according to veteran Fortune writer Pattie Sellers, who now at SellersEaston Media helps prominent families and companies capture their leadership stories: “Storytelling is the most generous thing you can do. It’s not an act of egotism. It’s a sharing of invaluable wisdom.”
Millennials' quest for meaning and impact at work already drives them to favor the connection encouraged through stories that unveil a business’ purpose over the robotic and jargon-filled mission statements of some big-box conglomerates.
Companies that are doing well with storytelling right now are the ones where the younger generation gets the family story and wants to hear it told and retold for their sake and for the good of the company. They are often the ones requesting documentation of the stories to honor the legacy of their parents.
As humans in business, the desire to compete and constantly raise the performance bar is natural. Formats for storytelling have evolved to encompass the latest multimedia offerings. As Sellers indicates, gone are the days when a personalized book retelling the family and business’ story would suffice.
Instead, in addition to elegantly bound books, Sellers reveals that she has seen a strong push for video and an increase in documentary-style storytelling which benefit both the business and family. She in increasingly being sought by businesses and people of a certain level of prominence, to capture their stories in the same way that she has captured the stories of leadership and impact of presidents and other popular figures.
Stories have the potential to preserve a business for generations . Business owners shouldn’t wait for their successors to initiate the storytelling process. Instead, they should take the lead in telling their stories and telling them often. The younger generation often wants it, and the business needs it to survive.
Storytelling could be as formal as engaging the services of a professional to develop a video, presentation, or book conveying your company’s story. It can also be as informal as taking 5 minutes at every corporate gathering to tell a tale or two from the old days of the company’s founding.
However you do it, storytelling just might be the thing that lasts long after the celebratory cake and ice-cream are forgotten. They reinvigorate a business, reconnect it with its core values, and prepare it to sail through a transition from one generation to the next without missing a beat.